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Swastika Display Triggers Hate Speech Debate

A Sacramento man’s display of a swastika on his front lawn has triggered a hate speech debate in California.

State Senator Marty Block (D-San Diego) was joined by a group of veterans, community leaders and fellow legislators February 26 in Sacramento urging the homeowner to remove the swastika from his Sacramento home. The display takes up a large portion of the front of the home.

The calls for removal are well-meaning, but the First Amendment would surely prevent the legislators from forcing the homeowner to remove the hateful symbol.

Similar attempts have failed in the past. Perhaps the best-known example occurred back in 1977, when the National Socialist Party of America announced plans to march through the predominantly-Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois, where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor. After a trip to the United States Supreme Court, the case resulted in an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that the use of a swastika is a symbolic form of free speech and the use of the symbol itself did not constitute “fighting words.” The ruling allowed the Nazis to march in Skokie.

Likewise, a 1992 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a St. Paul, Minnesota law banning displays of a burning cross or swastika. That case involved a teenager who burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. And in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Virginia law against cross-burning went too far, although cross-burning with intent to intimidate could be banned.

Ultimately, all these cases demonstrate this country’s commitment to free speech — even revulsive speech which seems to have no place in a civilized society — which make our country worlds apart from Hitler’s Germany. And they illustrate the famous words of the French writer Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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